Danica Lee can’t quite believe how far SD8 has come.
The Trafalgar Middle School graduate is currently working as the aboriginal education enhancement coordinator for the Kootenay Lake school district, and she’s never seen an event quite like the youth conference that brought 160 students to Nelson on Monday.
“Trafalgar was the first place I got a chance to reconnect with my culture, and it started in a janitor’s closet in the basement next to the boy’s bathroom,” Lee told the Star.
“Now we’ve taken over the whole school, and as you can see we’ve come a long way.”
The inaugural event attracted students from all over the district, including the Yaqan Nukiy School and Erickson Elementary in Creston. It began with an opening ceremony from elder Donna Wright and testimony from aboriginal youth leaders who graduated from SD8, then continued with a variety of workshops.
And it’s by far the largest event of its kind ever held here.
“This is huge. We do our annual Pow Wow in Creston, which is a big event every year, but this is our first leadership conference where we’ve been able to get all these schools together. It’s incredibly exciting,” she said.
She hopes to bridge cultural gaps.
“That’s the only way we can end racism and prejudice, is learning about and getting excited about other people’s cultures.”
Listening to our elders
Elder Donna Wright has Cree and Métis blood from her father’s side, while her mother’s family was Norwegian. It’s important to her, when introducing herself, that people understand all of the different nations she comes from.
“That way we honour all the nations, because for many years our nations weren’t allowed to stand with other nations,” she said, noting that knowing where you’re from is an integral part of her culture.
“The first thing you need to know as a child is where you came from, otherwise you won’t know where you’re going.”
And no matter what your provenance, she believes we are all connected.
“We all come from the land, the first drum we hear is our mom, and we’re all connected by the air we breathe and the land we stay on. The more we realize that, the nicer we’ll be to one another.”
These are some of the teachings she shared with the students, and she thinks they’re crucial to the students’ development. And when they gathered, she made sure to arrange them in a circle.
“We always like to open with a big circle because when you’re standing in a circle everyone’s equal. It’s not a performance, you’re sharing. And we may come from different places and belong to different faiths, but they’re all good.”
She thanked everyone responsible for bringing all the youth — aboriginal and non-aboriginal — together to learn from each other and elders like her.
“Culture is a lifeline, not an elective.”
‘You can belong anywhere’
During the opening ceremonies, students heard testimony from four aboriginal women who graduated from SD8: Jaimie Adams, Hailey Matheson, Tressa Ford and Alyssa Mynott.
They took turns answering questions from Trafalgar students, including how to find a place where you belong. Matheson encouraged the kids to express their individuality while finding a community that accepts them the way they are.
“I moved a lot growing up, every couple of years I was in a different school or a different place, so a lot of times it made me feel like I didn’t belong. But there’s a big difference between somewhere you don’t belong, and somewhere you don’t fit in,” Matheson said.
“You don’t necessarily need to fit in as far as looking like everyone else and dressing like everyone else. Belonging is just having people you care about, and who care about you.”
Her message: “You can belong anywhere you have support.”
Watching nearby was Adams’ grandfather, Nelson city councillor Bob Adams, who years ago spearheaded efforts along with his wife Lynn to reallocate aboriginal education funds he felt were being misused. The Monday event left him feeling overwhelmed and proud.
“We didn’t have that when I went to school. It’s a big step and it’s come a long way since I first started on the aboriginal education committee,” he said.
“First they got those aboriginal education rooms, starting out small, and now they’re quite big and the whole school is basically involved. They’ve grown, and the students have grown.”
He believes the emphasis on aboriginal education in the new curriculum will have huge impacts on kids like his great-granddaughter Blake, who was also enjoying the festivities.
“What I saw today was the start of something that will be really great and will help aboriginal students live a better life.”
Momentum, connectedness and inspiration
While the kids made their way around to workshops that touched on skills such as weaving, grass-dancing, spear-throwing and drumming, Trafgalar principle Carol-Anne Leidloff was watching proudly.
“This conference provided a powerful way to build a sense of pride, belonging and connectedness for the aboriginal students in the district. The presenters and mentors made the culture come alive and helped our students celebrate and appreciate their heritage,” she said.
She expressed a special thank you to Lee as well as the Slocan Valley’s aboriginal education teacher Jesse Halton and her vice principal Jeff Yasinchuk for organizing it.
Superintendent Jeff Jones echoed her praise, saying the event gives the district the opportunity to undo some of the harm of residential schools and reconnect families that have been torn apart.
“In many cases there are generational disconnects where one, two or three generations have been deprived of this proud heritage. Reconciliation to me includes the responsibility of assisting students and their families to make those connections,” he said.
“And also helping those who are not of aboriginal descent in becoming knowledgeable so that we are not the conduits of the parts of our past that have repressed entire nations.”
There’s more to come like this, he said.
“I am very appreciative of the generosity of our aboriginal friends who welcome us with such grace — open arms inviting us into these important understandings. I am a different human being because of the generosity of the people in our district and beyond who have been patiently teaching me.”
He hopes students will have their perspectives changed like he did.
“I hope that our students and staff can experience similar transformations, which ultimately will help us all become better people as we come together for a better future.”